Graduate Adviser Lisa Aarli retires from the J-School

After 11 years of advising and supporting graduate students, Lisa Aarli is retiring from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Aarli’s warmth and dedication to her advisees were a hallmark of her tenure on the fifth floor of Vilas Hall. This semester, as part of JOURN 335: Principles and Practices of Reporting, professional M.A. student Keifa Jaward chose to profile Aarli and detail her time at the J-School and her challenges and successes as a graduate adviser.

The souls she touched at Vilas Communication Hall are forever grateful to have met her

By Keifa Jaward

Lisa Aarli headshotMost people view job responsibilities as business obligations to fulfill their part of a contract. For this group of people, their major motivation for a job is to make their living. But here is an employee who finds so much joy in what she does not because of the business aspect of the job, but because of the impact she makes in the lives of the people she serves and the relationships that she builds with the strangers that she come across in her line of work.

Lisa Aarli, 61, has always wanted to contribute to social change. Her strong desire of wanting to make the world a better place kept her pushing and redesigning her skills until she acquired a job as the Graduate Adviser for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She moved to Madison in 1992 when she was at a stage where she needed to transition into a new life – going back to school and doing something different than her previous work as a community organizer in Chicago. She also wanted to settle where there was less city pressure, so, she decided to settle in Madison because she’d visited there before and found the environment to be peaceful.

Getting started in Madison

In Madison, Aarli’s first role was a teaching job at East High School, and later at Middleton High School after she graduated with a Master of Science in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1996. It was during her teaching service that she gained a passion for working in the education sector, specifically with students because of her strong desire to effect change in the world.

After ten years of teaching at Middleton High School, she gained a job with the Associated Students of Madison, a student government at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“It was a great opportunity for me to know campus and to work with mostly undergraduate students – teach them and advise them on how to manage themselves and how to make social change in the world,” she said.

After six years of working for ASM, Aarli joined the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2012 as the Graduate Adviser. As with many new employees, she did not hit the ground running because she had never done a lot of the things that the job required.

Graduate adviser Lisa Aarli advises a student in her office.However, her passion to work with students, her desire to learn from others and her determination to deliver on her responsibilities enabled her to gradually settle in.

“It was just that sort of constant process of finding out new things. But right away, I liked it here. And then, as time went on, I became better at my job; I understood more what graduate students might need,” Aarli explained.

Workplace motivation and stress

Aarli’s commitment to work is born out of her desire to make the world a better place, and she is convinced that she can achieve that by working with people, especially students from different parts of the world.

“The administrative job is necessary, but the part that is really rewarding for me is working with people. It is not just about the business, it is about the relationship and connecting with people from diverse background,” Aarli told me in a smiling tone.

Throughout her work life at the J-School, Aarli finds so much comfort in working with like-minded and motivated team members that are always committed to improving on the standards and services in the department.

“I really enjoy the people here,” she said. “I would say everybody here works very hard and are committed to what I am committed to in trying to make the world a better place.”

Aarli’s diligence earned her the 2016-17 College of Letters and Sciences Academic Advising Award, “in recognition of outstanding performance and professionalism in advising L&S students.” The creativity that she brings to the job is so commendable to her team members that they still think that it will be quite impossible to have a replacement that will match her.

Random thoughts on Aarli’s tenure at J-School

In her Sept. 7, 2023 email that broke the news about Aarli’s retirement, J-School director and professor, Kathleen Bartzen Culver, acknowledged Aarli’s crucial role in the administration of the J-School and stated that “Lisa brings her enormous compassion, organization, empathy and smarts to her work here.”

J-School faculty, staff and new graduate students socialize at the Memorial Union Terrace.Director of Graduate Studies, Professor Michael Wagner, describes her as “kind, smart, strategic and creative.” He recounted that he would not have accepted his current position four years ago if Aarli was retiring soon.

“I did it knowing that I would have a person I could absolutely trust and rely upon not just to do the required administrative work, but to creatively and forcefully advocate for students,” he said.

For Wagner, the best way to remember Aarli is to learn from her examples.

“I think that an important thing for those of us who will keep on working here after Lisa retires is to regularly ask ourselves, ‘what would Lisa Aarli do?’ when we’re faced with difficult decisions,” he suggested.

The Director for the Professional Graduate Program, Stacy Forster, feels so lucky to work with Aarli because of her kindness and smartness.

“She’s very smart about helping students find the best path,” Forster said. “She really understands UW and how to navigate it and that really helps students think through their program because going through graduate school is a big commitment.”

Forster will always miss Aarli for her commitment to work and her problem-solving skills. She will miss their usual meetings on issues happening in the graduate program, students’ welfare and event planning.

“She’s been in this role for so long and done it so well. She knows so much and has all the knowledge about how to make things happen, and I am really going to miss that,” Forster said

What makes Aarli worry at work?

Overall, Aarli has been very pleased with her job. However, her concern to provide the most needed support for students to navigate through their graduate programs makes her stressed sometimes.

“I worry about funding for students, I worry about students who come to grad school. They’ve invested all this time and energy, but then they decide to drop out of the program because of different reasons. They might just be facing really difficult situations in their personal lives or in their home countries,” Aarli said.

Her most difficult time on her job was during the COVID-19 outbreak when everybody was forced to work from home for over a year.

“I couldn’t meet with people in person. A lot of students were having a really difficult time coping with the situation. So, that was another stressful period for me,” she recalled.

A compassionate counselor that the students will always remember

Many graduate students will miss Aarli for the compassionate counseling that she rendered to them, and her practical solutions to solving problems.

Graduate adviser Lisa Aarli waters the large fern in Vilas Hall.Safi Nitanga, a Research M.A. student in the J-School is very grateful of how Aarli helped her to settle in Madison and guided her on ways to manage her time in grad school.

“I have talked to her a couple of times about the Teaching Assistant position that I have, the kind of work that is expected of me and how to handle it,” Nitanga said.

As the clock ticks day-by-day, many faculty members are students are still finding it difficult to accept that Aarli will depart the J-School in January 2024. Apart from the administrative work, Aarli can be remembered for her ability in making a seemingly stressful environment lively by bringing graduate students and faculty members together for fun.

She will be missed in the weekly Coffee Friday and the Yoga sessions. Students will miss the broad smile that makes them always comfortable to visit Room 5132 at the fifth floor of Vilas Hall, and even the plants along corridor may miss the regular watering that helps them blossom.

The gains that she will be proud of

Aarli is very proud that the department has created a very welcoming and inclusive environment for graduate students. She is very proud that the diversity of the students has increased, and that J-School now has people from more parts of the world, including the United States, than before.

“When students come and have a positive experience, they share that information with other people who might be interested in the program,” Aarli said.

As she plans to embark on a happy retirement, Aarli hopes that J-School will continue to get additional funding to support more graduate students and continue to make their programs attractive to more students.

Her advice to her successor is, “Pay attention to people. Listen to people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You won’t know everything right away. Find people that you can learn from. Enjoy yourself.”